On September 5, 2021, special military forces detained Guinean president Alpha Condé in the name of democracy. Led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya, the putschists espoused aspirations to giving this nation of about 13 million people a new start. The colonel said it’s not a coup d’etat, it’s an intervention for the well-being of a nation where the majority suffer grinding poverty despite enormous mineral wealth. “If you see the state of our roads, of our hospitals – it’s time for us to wake up” (“Guinean president seized in takeover”, The Washington Post,9/6/21) and bring rights to Guinean citizens and respect democratic principles.
Many countries around the world, mainly those with direct interests in Guinea unequivocally condemn the takeover. But the cheering crowds of people celebratingand dancing in the streets of Conakry certainly don’t. This should give the leaders of those countries some pause. There’s no clearer popular referendum for a “no” to now former president Condé. He was in power 11 years and, afflicted by “third-termism”, was refusing to step aside by engineering constitutional changes so he could stay in power, against the popular will.
History on repeat mode?
The tragic history of Guinea, a former protectorate and then colony of the former French Colonial Empire, seems to press down on the hopes of so many for the future. Foreign powers with economic and political interests in the region – such as France, the U.S., Australia, Canada – are all calling for Condé’s immediate and unconditional release. After all they want things to get back to normal as soon as possible: the exploitation of iron ore and bauxite accompanied by economic stagnation, poverty and disease for millions; the corruption accompanying flashy deals; unfettered assurances of corporate profitability veiled behind a veneer of “development”; and the defense of “national security” as an engine of economic recovery and expansion amidst renewed great power competition (U.S. vs. China) and sustained on the backs of modern African slave labor (what else can you call paying rock extractors an average of $5/day for grueling and dangerous work?).
In his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), Walter Rodney, the renown Guyanese historian, political activist, author, and a victim of political assassination in 1980, wrote that colonialism made Africa and Africans objects of history to be pushed around into governance positions that suited foreign interests. Today, the new scramble for Africa as a source of raw materials and markets for goods objectifies military coups as “bad” for the business of capital accumulation through the strategic control of trade and investment worldwide. In order to leverage force to subdue resistance to exploitation and extract profits, backing African sell-outs like Condé are a necessary part of the definition of that strategy.
In the face of a facetiously cultivated justification of what Rodney termed “development by contradiction”, wherein capitalism both creates value and wealth for the exploiters while immiserating those who are exploited to achieve value and wealth, Guineans want their government to be responsive to their needs and interestsand aspirations. They want their natural resources to be accessed and used in their benefit first. They want to regain their sovereignty as a people.
Guineans - like Malians, Nigeriens, Chadians, Ethiopians, Sudanese and all other Africans – want a more positive future. It is their right to demand democracy. And if in the struggle against the elites dedicated to holding on to power while backed by foreign powers holding on to their control of that power they have to depend on a forced regime change, then it says a lot about the great longing for a political silver bullet.
Are all military takeovers bad?
No military coup should be desired, promoted or supported. But it is also important to recognize that not all military coups are bad per se, especially if they are endogenous (versus exogenously instigated by a foreign power). Coups don’t always promote political instability. Nor are they always bad for democracy. In Zimbabwe, for example, the verdict is still out on the 2017 military ouster of strongman Mugabe. The country did not spiral into a cycle of anarchy, and the regime change may yet yield positive results. All change takes time.
In Guinea, although the recent coup undermines the constitutional bases of leadership, it’s not an anti-democratic coup. What was anti-democratic was the failure to realize a much needed regime change. Unfortunately, international voluntary forgetfulness and blindness actually promoted the longevity of a failed system that used this choice to see no evil-hear no no evil to justify the personalization of power and increasing repression of opponents and society.
The democracy-inspired coup led by Col. Doumbouya can actually serve as an effective accountability mechanism to strengthen the country’s next government phase, by blocking new elites from coming to power. It can breathe fresh air into national leadership.
Although there is no really “good” coup, it’s also safe tosay that the vast majority of coups don’t happen in democracies. If the coup is successful, it can open paths toward democratization because the takeover leaders need to establish political legitimacy and economic growth. If it fails, however, there will be no greater credible signal that leaders in Guinea must enact reforms.
The removal of authoritarian leaders always generates uncertainty about whether the transition will usher in protracted disorder and violence and whether it will usher in a wholesale change or keep the status quo. Typically, when the military is involved, transitions are seldom smooth, as evidenced in Egypt (2011), Burkina Faso (2014), Sudan (2019), and Mali (2020). They all have proven far more volatile and chaotic than initially anticipated. They have also triggered a prolonged period of instability. But when seeking to understand these “bad” coups, the elephant in the room is the role that foreign intervention played in the unfolding of events and the outcome of the coup.
A coup that is applauded calls for active listening skills
What all the democratically governed nations scrambling for a leg-up in Africa’s extractive landscape seem to forget is that, as Ugandan author Mahmood Mamdani has pointed out, “real custodians of democratic order was never the state but society” (Extracting Profit, Lee Wengraf, 2018). A society that applauds a military takeover is clearly saying something!
Why is it so hard for France or the U.S. or Australia or other so-called developed democratic nations to listen? Is it because they are blinded by their ironic belief in the myth that “ordinary Africans are merely passive victims of authoritarian rulers or fueled by conflicts of age-old ethnic divides” (Wengraf)? If so, it’s a reprehensible racist assumption rooted in imperialistic geostrategic designs in a context marked by rivalries between old imperial and colonial powers and emerging economic powerhouses.
Democracy isn’t for the faint-hearted
Rivers of ink have flowed and today continue flooding the press and the publishing world about how Africa’s wealth has been inhumanely extracted forprofit over people and democracy. But the important question right now is not: How does the military takeover disrupt the world’s bauxite mining benefits? (The Washington Post, 9/8/2021). The important question is: How can the countries who have been complicit in the pauperization and lack of democratic development of Guinea help the military junta shift power to the people?
No military takeover is ever desired. But it’s ironic that civilian, non-democratic strongmen in Africa’s history since independence have usually been accepted and even welcomed and supported in their power grabs and ensuing authoritarian rule in the name of “respect” for their nation’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, the few democracy-leaning military leaders motivated to act in the interest of the peace and well-being of the population are demonized stock, lock and barrel.
It’s frustrating that African people often see a military intervention as part of the solution. But given the utter lack of respect for their well-being and their nation’s development in peace on the part of those nations who profit from that disrespect, the choice is rather stark: endure exploitation under proven misrule and lack of democratic principles or hope for something better under a military transition that at least espouses a legitimate aspiration to a better life for everyone.
Can Guinea’s coup be democratic?
The verdict is still out on whether it’s a coup d’etat or a coup de grâce. It would, of course, be naïve to believe a fairy-tale transition will occur. But given that the military takeover was in response to persistent unpopular opposition against the Condé regime, it may be the best chance, given the right international support, for transfer to power to a democratically elected government.
For the coup to lead to positive outcomes, outsiders need to: STOP greedily and selfishly fighting over the country’s strategic mineral wealth; STOP tryingto push the usual blame-the-victim explanation; STOP trying to pin everything on the putschists while downplaying the fact that the takeover is a power play that threatens foreign access to Guinea’s wealth in iron ore and bauxite; STOP publishing closed-minded, self-interested reporting instead of balanced and informed news coverage; STOP inducing a climate of fear borne of Western perceptions of an African heart of darkness that are grounded in ignorance or worse yet, racism. There’s no bigger and more loving heart than Africa’s, however often it has been broken and trampled on.
Whether Guinea’s recent coup is a success or a failure depends to a large degree on the reactions and methods of foreign intervention. Economic intervention and peacekeepers are more likely to contribute to political stability, while indirect (sanctions) and direct (military intervention) and NGOs are likely to decrease the chances for political stability.
Outsiders need to start envisaging how they can sincerely help Guinea transition from a military coup in the name of democracy to a coup de grâce to the puppet authoritarian government they were supporting. The coup can be good for democracy in Guinea, if the celebratory voices of the civil society that is so valued internationally as a factor for democratic development are not just heard but actually listened to. After all, for most people, the military takeover is the fault of the politicians, not the soldiers.
The coup should be seen as a circuit breaker than can set the country on a different development path. The examples of Chile, Korea, Taiwan and, to some extent, Spain provide examples of how military coups can pave the path to successful civilian administration.
The crux of Guinea’s turning point
The heart of the matter of uncertainty in Guinea right now is how heartlessly focused the rest of the world is on one main issue: the disruption of the global supply of aluminum, which puts more pressure on the Covid-impacted value chain and increases prices for consumers. Articles are being published about how its disrupting supply of bauxite, affecting the price of aluminum, and can potentially the prices of cars. But nothing is being written on the potential benefits the coup can have on the lives and livelihoods of Guineans.
How selfish and hard-hearted can rich country analysis get about realities in Africa?! Nevermind that Guinea’s bauxite boom has helped everyone but locals. Never mind how foreign mining companies have wrecked the farmland, drinking water, health and livelihoods of so many Guineans. Never mind that nearly half the population lives in poverty. Never mind that Africans who were denied their freedom from colonial rule have been denied the benefits of their nation's wealth. Never mind that they then have suffered the policies of African leaders like Condé, so amenable to pleasing (i.e. being corrupted) foreign powers with economic and political interests in the region and who have consistently backed such leaders to the detriment of Africa’s democratic and human development. Never mind that the new scramble for Africa's wealth and markets is again denying Africans their right to self-determination.
Is it really that crazy to want to, like Col. Doumbouya, harness Guineans’ natural wealth heritage so the people (of Guinea, of course) can “live in an environment where basic human needs can be met” (“Guinea faces uncertainty after its latest military takeover”, The Washington Post, 9/7/2021)? Is it too much to ask that the rights and well-being of Guineans be put first?